“The data is clear: climate change affects all dimensions of human life, including the economy, housing, immigration, public health, food systems, national security, and political stability. Its far-reaching effects mean that achieving carbon neutrality will require that climate be embedded into frameworks across all sectors and industries, rather than existing as a standalone issue.”[i]
We’re biased. The focus of our work at Camber Collective over the past decade has been on the human element – thriving communities supported by effective, equitable, and just systems that promote health, economic opportunity, rights, and democracy. And while it’s widely accepted that the repercussions of climate change put all of these goals at risk, continued siloization — among health, development and rights — impedes the progress that is so urgently necessary.
Much of the response to climate change to date has focused on spurring technology innovation, providing incentives, and developing approaches to reduce further industry-driven harm to the climate and environment.[ii] These types of investments are critical to stop climate change and to reduce further harm to communities, but they are not sufficient. To reach climate neutrality, repair harm to communities, and avoid re-entrenching the power structures that led us to the brink of disaster in the first place, organizations focused on climate and environment and those focused on health, economic mobility, and governance need to change their practices. Three equally critical places to start:
- Embed equity and justice in climate and environment efforts.
There is a fundamental, inequitable mismatch between who is bearing the brunt of climate change and environmental degradation, and who is benefiting from efforts to address it. Historically oppressed communities are more likely to be subjected to extreme weather, drought, disease, pollution, and lack of basic public services. Yet public and private funding for clean energy, adapted infrastructure, and clean-up disproportionately benefit more advantaged localities – communities whose consumption habits are primarily responsible for climate damage. We see this in the communities where Camber’s offices are based: Seattle, San Francisco, Washington DC, and Paris, and in the communities each of us call home: Michigan, Pakistan, North Carolina, Togo, France, and Texas, to name a few.[iii] For example, in the environmentally conscious Puget Sound where Camber is headquartered, environmental clean-up efforts historically moved more quickly in wealthier, whiter communities, whereas communities of color, which tend to be poorer and less-structurally resourced, have suffered the most damage.[iv] At the national level, climate venture capital, clean energy jobs, climate-adapted infrastructure, and even tree-planting efforts have disproportionately gone to wealthier communities — while the consequences of climate change and environmental degradation has disproportionately hit poorer communities.[v][vi] At the global level, most climate funding is distributed to organizations in high-income countries even as low-income countries suffer greater damage and risk.[vii]
Current decision-making structures about how and where to focus climate and environment efforts unfortunately replicate the same asymmetric power structures that have exacerbated climate damage all along. Those with decision-making power skew white, college-educated, upper middle class, and from the Global North. Communities which are disproportionately impacted by climate damage – people of color, community-educated, poverty and lower-middle class, and often from the Global South – are excluded from the decision-making that deeply affects their own communities.
Climate and environment equity and justice efforts work to repair the historic and present inequities in the distribution of climate change and environmental burden relative to those responsible for causing it, and in the distribution of resources, benefits, and responsibilities for addressing the problem.
Such efforts are largely led by grassroots organizations and activists, which have been on the forefront of raising awareness and garnering legislative wins despite chronic underfunding and marginalization by policy makers.[viii] Mainstream nonprofits and philanthropists, governments, and technologists, are playing a difficult game of catch-up – and starting to think through how to integrate equity and justice into their decision-making, strategies, and processes. One example is Carbon 180, an organization dedicated to carbon removal. In 2021, this Washington, D.C.-based NGO worked with environmental justice leaders to define five principles for integrating environmental justice as a fundamental component to its work.[ix] We are now working with them to integrate those principles into the design of a partnership to fund global carbon removal efforts.
2. Adapt health and development programs to be “climate smart”.
There is a mutually reinforcing relationship between climate and environment and progress in other sectors such as economic mobility and poverty reduction, agriculture and nutrition, humanitarian relief, political stability and democracy, and health.[x] While organizations focused on health and development recognize this interconnectedness, relatively few have taken the next step: to interrogate their strategies and programming to identify places to reduce their own impact on climate and “future proof” for continued climate degradation.
At best, programs based solely on yesterday’s data fail to position communities to adapt to present and inevitable future changes that affect the food they can grow, the health issues they will face, and the potentially destabilizing social and political impacts they will encounter as a result of climate change. At worst, they exacerbate and accelerate challenges by creating disincentives for adaptation or even contributing directly to environmental decline.
Adapting programs to be climate-smart requires first assessing the mutual interdependencies between climate, environment, global health and development programs and structures, and the communities they seek to impact. Based on this assessment, organizations can identify which linkages are most critical to address, what options for strategic shifts in programming seem most promising, and what optimal approaches might be based on costs, impact, and potential consequences of those options.
An example of this approach can be found in the body of work executed by a global maternal and child health foundation to map the interplay between climate and food systems. Based on this conceptual map, we worked with this client to clarify their role within ecosystem of stakeholders and how best to influence a transformation towards a more resilient, adaptable, and equitable Sub-Saharan African food system.[xi] Another example at a more programmatic level is United Mission for Relief and Development, a humanitarian relief organization that is in the process of modifying their efforts in Wajir county, Kenya, to counter climate impact on the agriculture, nutrition, and generational stability of the local community.
3. Strengthen political will and public pressure for urgent climate action.
Public awareness of the global climate threat has outpaced public prioritization and pressure for climate action. This disconnect is partly due to the perceived weight of the near-term problems – most notably the global economy, but also global societal challenges around sexual and reproductive rights, racial justice, COVID-19, threats to democracy, and a host of other concerns – relative to the long-term impacts of a changing climate. The well-funded opposition has successfully used digital analytics, misinformation, social and traditional media engagement of grassroots groups, and culture wars tactics to politicize and polemicize the matter, further diminishing urgent pressure for climate action. Indeed, fossil fuel interests continue to successfully lobby for heavy subsidies globally, further increasing emissions and air pollution beyond amounts that would have been produced by efficient pricing.[xii]
It goes without saying that strengthening political will and public pressure for urgent climate action requires the right technical policy. Yet even beyond this, it requires strengthening the field’s communications infrastructure and its ability to counter the opposition. This counterattack also necessitates new means of support for frontline and community organizations working to broaden and mobilize different constituencies to demand climate action. We also need additional innovation: new approaches and messages that can cut across party lines and culture-war boundaries—all without diminishing the power of aligned communities including healthcare, climate justice, and immigration rights advocates. And climate action requires investing in building the strength and power of promising organizations, in much the same way the fossil-fuel-friendly opposition has funded the development of powerful institutions that hinder climate action.[xiii]
The William & Flora T. Hewlett Foundation is one organization which took up this mantle in 2019-2020 in bringing together a broad coalition of stakeholders engaged in climate communications infrastructure. This coalition of stakeholders was convened to help identify opportunities to strengthen their joint impact. Camber worked with them to landscape the field’s strengths and weaknesses relative to what worked for other successful movements, and to then bring together working groups of key funders, NGOs, and academia to jointly define where to focus their efforts. This work directly informed Hewlett’s climate communications strategy and led to collaborative investments strengthen the digital and social media capabilities of frontline communities, challenge digital disinformation, support connective tissue and coordination across the field, and expand resources for communications.[xiv]
Investing in these three critical areas can begin to fill the gap between the necessary investments in technology innovation and technical policy change, and the full scope of changes required to achieve climate neutrality, repair harm to communities, and prevent the risk of backsliding. If you agree that these interconnected issues require a different way of thinking, frank discourse, and bolder action, we are excited to work with you. Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
[ii] CWF_Funding_Trends_2021.pdf (climateworks.org), Understanding Impact Performance_Climate Change Mitigation Investments (thegiin.org), Fast track to a low-carbon, climate resilient economy (climatepolicyinitiative.org)
[iv] P5 – Equity and Justice – Puget Sound Final 2021-23.pdf; Revised toxic-cleanup rules will increase focus on environmental justice | Encyclopedia of Puget Sound (eopugetsound.org); Washington Environmental Health Disparities Map Project | Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences